Free Will

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2000
Dr. Geisler explains three categories of human choice and explores the implications arguments and objections to each.



Concepts of the nature of human choice fall within three categories: determinism, inde­terminism, and self-determinism. A determinist looks to actions caused by another, an indeterminist to uncaused actions, and a self-determinist to self-caused actions.


There are two basic kinds of determinism: naturalistic and theistic. Naturalistic determin­ism is most readily identified with behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner. Skinner held that all human behavior is determined by genetic and behavioral factors. Humans simply act according to what has been programmed into them.

All who accept strong forms of Calvinistic theology hold to some degree of theistic determinism. Jonathan Edwards related all actions ultimately to God as First Cause. “Free choice” for Edwards is doing what one desires, and God is the Author of the heart’s de­sires. God is sovereign, in control of all and so ultimately the cause of all. Fallen humanity is totally without freedom of the affections, so they can do whatever they want, but what they want will forever be in the control of their corrupt, world-directed heart. God’s grace controls actions as God controls desires and their attendant thoughts and actions.

Response to Determinism

Nondeterminists respond that a self-caused action is not impossible, and all actions need not be attributed to the First Cause (God). Some actions can be caused by human beings to whom God gave free moral agency. Free choice is not, as Edwards contends, doing what one desires (with God giving the desires). Rather, it is doing what one decides, which is not always the same thing. One need not reject God’s sovereign control to deny determinism. God can control by omniscience as well as by causal power.

Two forms of determinism may be distinguished, hard and soft. A hard determinist believes all acts are caused by God, that God is the only efficient Cause. A soft determinist holds that God as the Primary Cause is compatible with human free choice as the second­ary Cause.


According to the indeterminist, few if any human actions are caused. Events and action are contingent and spontaneous.

Arguments for indeterminism

The arguments for indeterminism follow the nature of free actions. Since they follow no determinate pattern, it is concluded that they are indeter­minate. Some contemporary indeterminists appeal to Werner Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy to support their position. According to this principle, events in the subatomic realm (like the specific course of a given particle) are completely unpredictable.

According to the argument from the unpredictability of free acts, an act must be predict­able in order to be determinate. But free acts are not predictable. Hence, they are indeter­minate.

Critique of Indeterminacy

All forms of indeterminism fall shipwreck on the principle of causality, which asserts that all events have a cause. But indeterminacy asserts that free choices are uncaused events.

Indeterminism makes the world irrational and science impossible. It is contrary to rea­son to affirm that things happen willy nilly without a cause. Hence, indeterminacy reduces to irrationalism. Both operation and origin sciences are dependent on the principle of cau­sality. Simply because a free act is not caused by another does not mean that it is uncaused. It could be self-caused.

Use of Heisenberg’s principle is misapplied, since it does not deal with the causality of an event but with unpredictability.

Indeterminism robs humans of their moral responsibility, since they are not the cause of these actions. If they are not, why should they be blamed for evil actions? Indeterminism, at least on a cosmic scale, is unacceptable from a biblical perspective, since God is causally related to the world as both originator (Genesis 1) and sustainer of all things (Col. 1:15-16).


According to this view, a person’s moral acts are not caused by another or uncaused, but are caused by oneself. It is important to know at the outset precisely what is meant by self-determinism or free choice. Negatively, it means that a moral action is not uncaused or caused by another. It is neither indeterminate nor determined by another. Positively, it is morally self-determined, an act freely chosen, without compulsion, in which one could have done otherwise. Several arguments support this position.

Arguments for Self-determinism

Either moral actions are uncaused, caused by another, or caused by oneself. However, no action can be uncaused, since this violates the fundamental rational principle that every event has a cause. Neither can a person’s actions be caused by others, for in that case they would not be personal actions. Further, if one’s acts are caused by another then how can he or she be held responsible for them? Both Augustine (in On Free Will and On Grace and Free Will) and Thomas Aquinas were self-determinists, as are moderate Calvinists and Arminians.

The denial that some actions can be free is self-defeating. A complete determinist insists that both determinists and nondeterminists are determined to believe what they believe. However, determinists believe self-determinists are wrong and ought to change their view. But “ought to change” implies freedom to change, which is contrary to determin­ism. If God is the cause of all human actions, then human beings are not morally respon­sible, and it makes no sense to praise human beings for doing good, nor to blame them for doing evil.

A dimension of this controversy has to do with how the “self” is viewed. By “self” the self-determinist believes there is an “I” (subject) that is more than the object. That is, my subjectivity transcends my objectivity. I cannot put all that I am under a microscope to analyze as an object. There is more to “me” than objectivity. This “I” that transcends being objectified is free. The scientist who attempts to study personal self always transcends the experiment. The scientist is always on the outside looking in. In fact, “I” am free to reject “me.” It is not determined by objectivity, not subject to being locked into scientific analysis. As such, the “I” is free.

Objections to Self-determinism

Free will rules out sovereignty. If human beings are free, are they outside God’s sover­eignty? Either God determines all, or else he is not sovereign. And if he determines all, then there are no self-determined acts.

It is sufficient to note that God sovereignly delegated free choice to some of his creatures. There was no necessity for him to do so; he exercised his free will. So human free­dom is a sovereignly given power to make moral choices. Only absolute freedom would be contrary to God’s absolute sovereignty. But human freedom is a limited freedom. Humans are not free to become God themselves. A contingent being cannot become a Necessary Being. For a Necessary Being cannot come to be. It must always be what it is.

Free will is contrary to grace. It is objected that either free, good acts spring from God’s grace, or else from our own initiative. But if the latter, they are not the result of God’s grace (Eph. 2:8-9). However, this does not necessarily follow. Free will itself is a gracious gift. Further, special grace is not forced coercively onto the person. Rather, grace works per­suasively. The hard determinist’s position confuses the nature of faith. The ability of a person to receive God’s gracious gift of salvation is not the same as working for it. To think so is to give credit for the gift to the receiver, rather than to the Giver.

A self-caused act is logically impossible. It is objected that self-determinism means to cause oneself, which is impossible. Someone cannot be prior to oneself, which is what a self-caused act entails. This objection misunderstands determinism, which does not mean that one causes himself to exist, but rather causes something else to happen. A self-deter­mined act is one determined by oneself, not another.

Self-determinism is contrary to causality. If all acts need a cause, then so do acts of the will, which are not caused by the self but by something else. If everything needs a cause, so do the persons performing the actions.

There is no violation of the actual principle of causality in the exercise of free actions. The principle does not claim that every thing (being) needs a cause. Finite things need a cause. God is uncaused. The person performing free actions is caused by God. The power of freedom is caused by God, but the exercise of freedom is caused by the person. The self is the first-cause of personal actions. The principle of causality is not violated because every finite thing and every action has a cause.

Self-determinism is contrary to predestination. Others object that self-determinism is contrary to God’s predestination. But self-determinists respond that God can predetermine in several ways. He can determine (1) contrary to free choice (forcing the person to do what he or she does not choose to do); (2) based on free choices already made (waiting to see what the person will do); and (3) knowing omnisciently what the person will do “in accordance with his foreknowledge” (1 Peter 1:2). “Those God foreknew he also predes­tined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). Either positions 2 or 3 are consistent with self-determinism. Both insist that God can determine the future by free choice, since he omnisciently knows for sure how they will freely act. So, it is determined from the standpoint of God’s infallible knowledge but free from the vantage point of human choice.

Connected with the argument from strong determinism is that, while Adam had free choice (Rom. 5:12), fallen human beings are in bondage to sin and not free to respond to God. But this view is contrary to both God’s consistent call on people to repent (Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38) and believe (e.g., John 3:16; 3:36; Acts 16:31), as well as to direct statements that even unbelievers have the ability to respond to God’s grace (Matt. 23:37; John 7:17; Rom. 7:18; 1 Cor. 9:17; Philem. 14; 1 Peter 5:2).

This argument continues that if humans have the ability to respond, then salvation is not of grace (Eph. 2:8-9) but by human effort. However, this is a confusion about the nature of faith. The ability of a person to receive God’s gracious gift of salvation is not the same as working for it. To think so is to give credit for the gift to the receiver rather than to the Giver who graciously gave it.


Augustine, On Free Will

J. Edwards, The Freedom of the Will

J. Fletcher, John Fletcher’s Checks to Antinomianism, abridged by P. Wiseman

R. T. Forster, et al., God’s Strategy in Human History

N. L. Geisler; “Man’s Destiny: Free or Forced,” CSR, 9.2 (1979)

D. Hume, The Letters of David Hume

C. S. Lewis, Miracles

M. Luther, On Grace and Free Will

M. Luther, The Bondage of the Will

B. F. Skinner, Beyond Behaviorism

B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica


  1. […] “Free Will” by Dr. Norman Geisler […]

  2. dwayne on August 21, 2021 at 9:44 pm

    Only 3 ways to look at salvation:

    1. Man does all the work
    2. God and man does all the work
    3. God does all the work and He gets the glory.

    Faith means “to bring to belief”
    So is it by our faith or His faith?
    When people do not know His faith they can only know and trust in their own faith cause them to feel religious.
    Religion will try to build up your faith with loud mind control music repeated over and over or by rituals or by good deeds. When you do religious things you will feel religious but that is not salvation. Faith is a work.
    1Th 1:3 Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, … [Without His work our work of faith is in vain.]
    We know salvation is not by works so it must be by His work of faith he demonstrated on the cross.
    He must apply His faith for us to be saved.
    Rom 3:3 For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?
    His applied faith is effectual for salvation.
    When God pulls you into relationship with Himself how can you not believe?
    Joh_6:44 No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.
    Joh_6:65 And he said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.
    He must use force of His will. In John 6:44 The Greek word translated draw is more like drag. Only 8 verses that have that word. See how it is used and get a biblical definition. He must use force. Because we would not seek Him the right way. We would just make up another religion and call it Christianity. The devil wants people to think they are saved. And to feel religious by their good deeds.
    Rom 3:10 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: 11 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. 12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. [No not one.]
    Salvation is all His work and all His glory.
    To try to add to His work is to discount it.
    The law is not to help a person to live His kind of life, it is to get us to the end of ourselves to see our need and His answer.
    Does God make laws that man cannot do or keep? Yes!
    Deu_10:16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked. [Who can do that?]
    Deu_30:6 And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live. [Only He can do that.]
    Mat 7:7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
    Mat 7:8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. [What is your One Great Wish?]
    Mat 7:9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?
    Mat 7:10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?
    Mat 7:11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? [Get His help. Learn about goodness.]
    Mat 7:12 Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
    If you try to do that you will see you do not even measure up to your own expectation of others.
    Mat 7:13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
    It is the process of becoming poor in spirit.
    Mat 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    Mat 7:14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. [Then you may get out of being psychopathic.]
    You may start to understand others and the great gift He may give you. Mat 5:7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
    His gift is not something to take as an act of your self will, like by force. Joh_3:27 John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.
    What you can do is wait on Him for salvation.
    Lam 3:25 The LORD is good unto them that wait for Him, to the soul that seeketh Him.
    Lam 3:26 It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD.
    Be in the Word. He can apply His word to you.
    Rom_10:17 So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
    Let it make you humble. Jas_4:6 But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.
    He must give repentance. 2Ti_2:25 In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth;
    Salvation is all His work and all His glory.
    What church is teaching people to wait on Him for salvation? The Sabbath is a sign of the real thing. Resting in perfect complete work of salvation.

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